After Sandy Hook, a statement appeared online falsely attributed to Morgan Freeman about the role of the media in glamorizing perpetrators of gun violence. The Huffington Post reprinted the comments with remarks by L. Steven Sieden, who felt the anonymous author had a point.
“Do we dare to think for ourselves rather than allowing the media to dictate how the world is and should be?” Sieden asks, implying that had Adam Lanza been more of an independent thinker, he would have just died “a sad nobody” and everyone else would have been better off for it. In fact if the media would just stop glorifying mass shootings, “disturbed people”would simply do the mature thing and blow themselves away in private.
Months later those comments still haunt me.
My parents bought a house in Chapel Hill in 1974, the year I was born; my mother was pregnant with me when she and my father repainted the wood paneling yellow. I remember playing with caterpillars on the way to school in the morning and riding bikes with the neighborhood kids in the afternoon. I saw Michael Jordan play basketball when he was just a freshman and watched with jealousy as our neighbor piled her three children in the car and rushed up to Franklin Street to celebrate Tarheel victories. (We weren’t allowed to go. ‘Too dangerous,’ my father said.)
Still my father decided to invest in a gun. This may seem odd in a town that even today can be found listed among the top 10 best places to live in the United States. But it seems less odd considering that both my parents came of age in Mississippi during a time when a black child couldn’t attend a majority white school without the protection of federal guards.
Now here they were on the front lines of integration, with no references to draw upon and no idea what to expect. It must have been baffling, if not downright terrifying. And in my father’s mind, having a weapon in the house and making sure his family knew how to use it was at least one way to ensure our safety.
It never occurred to us that my mother would one day use the gun to take her own life.
In retrospect the signs were all there: a history of mental illness, a recent loss, feelings of isolation, and, of course, easy access to lethal methods. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 56 percent of men and 30 percent of women who died by suicide in 2009 used a firearm, making guns the leading means of suicide death among men and the second most prevalent among women. Firearms offer an alternative that is quick and immediate; a gunshot wound to the chest or head can snuff out a life a lot faster than sleeping pills or a razor blade, reducing the chances that a friend or family member might intervene.
My mother knew this and planned accordingly. She had procured four bottles of prescription sleeping pills, a supply it must have taken weeks to collect, when she finally decided to use my father’s gun. She shot herself in the bathroom, not an especially romantic place to end one’s life, but easy to clean up in case things got messy. And lastly she slipped away to complete her suicide on a quiet Sunday morning, when she was least likely to draw attention to herself. It was the “sad nobody” kind of suicide, the kind that doesn’t make national news, the kind that breaks hearts in private and leaves the national consciousness safely intact.
Maybe I should learn to be proud that my mother, depressed as she was, still had the sense to die sad and lonely instead of making a murderous spectacle of herself and shooting up the local elementary school. But before we start blaming the media for turning “sad nobodies” into mass murderers, we should ask ourselves who’s really the more desensitized. The direct correlation between the presence of firearms and the likelihood of suicide completion has been proven again and again. But it seems we don’t actually care enough about suicidal people to act on these facts unless they kill someone else along with themselves, unless they choose to be “monsters” instead of “nobodies.”
Maybe we’re scared of mental illness. Maybe we’d rather not look too closely at the complex history of gun ownership. Or maybe we simply can’t accept that there are no guarantees in life, no matter how idyllic the setting. But we can’t pin our fears on the media forever. Our denial is our own fault. And it is our responsibility to start paying attention.
Amy Evans is a playwright, essayist, and spoken word artist ( scriptingrage.com).